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California and the West

Clinton's Generosity Costs State Agency Pair of Patrol Boats

April 01, 1998|DAVE LESHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Among the goodwill gifts that President Clinton offered last week on his tour to Africa were a pair of 65-foot U.S. Navy patrol boats--worth about $1 million each--that he promised to the government of Ghana.

The problem is, the two boats were already declared surplus and offered to California last month. Within a few weeks, they were supposed to be patrolling the coast, helping state Fish and Game Department officers nab poachers, polluters and occasionally drug smugglers.

Now it appears they'll be used to search for refugees and terrorists along the coast of Africa.

"We did have every good-faith intention to transfer those boats to California," said Tara Jennings-May, spokeswoman for the Defense Department agency that handles surplus military equipment. "But before we could do that, a national priority came up that took precedence."

Military officials blamed the situation on a paperwork mix-up--and Gov. Pete Wilson's office has turned it into a political challenge.

California was given legal title to the vessels March 9 under a federal program that helps state law enforcement agencies get surplus military equipment. State Fish and Game officials were to pick up the boats at the San Diego naval base.

If they had shown up last week, they probably could have taken the boats without fuss, said David R. Shaw, the state's liaison for surplus military equipment. But "possession is nine-tenths of the law," he said.

Somewhere in the nation's vast bureaucracy, military officials said, the transfer of title to California was apparently lost. In the meantime, Clinton's advance team matched the boats with a package of surplus military equipment the president planned to give Ghana.

"The Ghanese are among the African states that are a priority for trying to improve their coastal defense," said P.J. Crowley, spokesman for the National Security Council, which coordinated the Africa tour that Clinton began with his visit to Ghana last week. "They will use these boats to patrol for smuggling, refugee flows and that kind of thing," he said.

Crowley said federal law makes military surplus such as the patrol boats available to both U.S. states and foreign allies. When two claims are made on the same equipment, Crowley said the state need is secondary.

Aides to Wilson said they hope to get replacement boats. But they also charged that the president was being insensitive to California.

"It's 'President Pander,' " Sean Walsh, Wilson's spokesman, said of Clinton. "He promises something . . . then he goes over to Africa and needs goodies to give and says, 'Sorry, California.' We get the short end of the stick."

White House spokesman Barry Toiv responded that it is "laughable" to think that Clinton does not take care of California. "Somebody must be running for something," he said.

"It's unfortunate that this clerical error was made," Toiv added. "We certainly hope that the state will be able to obtain the boats that it needs."

California has already been a major beneficiary of the federal surplus program, which began in 1991. Last year, more than $36 million worth of such equipment went to law enforcement agencies in the state.

The Los Angeles Police Department got hundreds of the Army's M-16 assault rifles. The Kern County Sheriff's Department got two helicopters and an armored personnel carrier in November.

The state Fish and Game Department had hoped the two new vessels would replace a pair of older boats it scrapped in 1996. Right now, there are seven boats patrolling 1,100 miles of California coastline. Officials said they need at least nine.

Most of the existing boats are smaller than the Navy vessels and unable to operate in bad weather or in the recovery of heavy equipment such as fishing nets or traps.

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